Who Am I to Call Myself a Writer?

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I wonder how many of us are suffering because we didn’t write to encourage, caution or entertain.

I am writing to the high school and college students who dream of publishing their first novel, yet cringe at the idea of prematurely calling themselves “writers”.

I am writing to the dutiful professionals who finally make time to write that story in their heads, yet painfully stare at their blinking cursors. The last thing they want to do is spoil that pristine blank page by typing “writer’s block, writer’s block, I’m suffering from another case of writer’s block” all over it.

I am writing to those compelled to put aside writing for what they perceive are rightful duties until their dreams dwindle to mere talk and, sometimes, regret.

If you think you don’t deserve to call yourself a writer, I daresay I’m worse than you. I love literature but took up science instead, thinking I wouldn’t have to become another poor suffering writer, yet the urge to write remained. When my grades tanked in my third year of university, I took up writing again alongside getting my degree, and even with well-meaning advice, I still couldn’t give up the words I’d written.

I got published in not one but two books (a nonfiction essay and a horror short story), and I can now claim to be a mathematician because of an original piece of research I did. I also blogged, or at least I used to. I churned out words regularly on Scrivener but I kept hitting an invisible wall once I had 20k words, or around fifty pages, of any novel project done.

I landed the opportunity to write for Huffington Post, and I was elated. However, after at least one reader discovered a calculation mistake in one of my maths posts, all my other submitted posts never made it to publication. Never. I tried in vain to reach the editors in charge so that I could fix the typo, but I received no response at all. Since my master’s studies had just begun, I had no choice but to give up on HuffPost.

Halfway through my studies, I joined an online writing group at a critique forum. Back then I registered at the critique forum because I was convinced that a writers’ community could help me succeed as a writer. The writing group had been supportive throughout my studies and the I-didn’t-know-it-was-bad job at a tuition centre in my neighbourhood. I applied for the job because the data science skills picked up during my degree fell short of what employers were seeking. The writing group also publishes one or more anthologies annually, and I thought they would be a great place for me to refine my writing skills and pad my publication record.

After I left that tuition job, I tried to convey my story of how I survived it, but somehow I had lost the ability to express myself clearly, and the newly installed leader of the group, who was the anthology coordinator, appeared aloof and cold to me. I guess it’s hard not to have strong reactions when someone attacks your personal story. On top of that, some other group members voiced their displeasure of me. There was nothing of that sort before and during my time slaving away in the tuition centre. If I stayed, I would be kowtowing to their whims too.

In anger and disappointment, I left that group, even though that meant cutting off future publication opportunities with them. But I couldn’t stand the pain I had felt during my final weeks there. Had that tuition centre story made it through, I would have had it published this October (2018). Everyone would have known how horribly I had been treated in the workplace and would have become more careful with their career choices.

Then I languished, dragging my fingers to the keyboard and typing gibberish, in the months leading up to July’s CampNaNo, still unable to erase my muscle memory of typing the forum URL. I also missed giving feedback on others’ writing because that forum had special critique tools, and every valid critique I made allowed me to post my own works-in-progress. I still remember the stories they shared of their families and communities. Everyone’s posts and comments were also clearly organised in threads. Had I made a mistake leaving my former writing buddies behind?

But the dog days passed. I managed to organise a writing session for my July 2018 CampNaNo cabin, where everyone else was a stranger. That day, I asked everyone to introduce themselves with their name, followed by “I am a writer.” A cabin mate said she was a “wannabe writer?” I clarified that the sentence “I am a writer” is an affirmation to encourage us to write. My cabin had a friendly demeanour and a positive tone, the latter of which I missed ever since some of the writing group members began sharing unhappy stories.

Furthermore, thanks to several new books†, I’ve since found and joined several writing groups on social media – all for free. (The forum operated on a freemium basis, and I forfeited six months of paid subscription to avoid getting hurt again.) Though I miss not being able to give feedback using the forum’s tools, now I may be in a healthier place for creative work than in the past. I even got to post my thoughts on outlining for the NaNoWriMo blog‡. Had I looked for validation from others, had I stayed with the familiar, I wouldn’t have written this for you today.

I’ve since learned that I am either the path or the obstacle to my writing, and I gave myself permission to write. That’s why I call myself a writer.


† The books are listed below. I hope you’ll find them as helpful as I did 🙂

‡ A reader asked,

Can you clarify the nature of the ideas you plotted and then binned? Are they story ideas, story beats, etc?

My detailed reply: 

The ideas have to do with your story. They’re all What-ifs, random ideas, quotes, scenes, ideas for scenes, ridiculous notions, pretty much anything. If you’ve gone through some outlining prompts such as this one for worldbuilding and those in K. M. Weiland’s book mentioned above, you’ll have plenty of ideas. Even contradictory ideas are okay because you’re still in the planning stages, where no idea is too precious to have to stay.

The main point is, get your creative juices flowing and don’t censor yourself.

The bins are the story beats which other writers have covered, such as the hook, the inciting event and pinch points. Instead of looking at the beat and coming up with the ideas, I say, “Firstly, brainstorm as many story ideas as you can. Next, file them under whichever story beat it could be in. Finally, free-write.” That’s the essence of the “jot, bin, pants” method.

 

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Productivity Tip: Fail-safe activities

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This is no ordinary fail-safe.

Before we talk about what a “fail-safe activity” is, as practitioners of an imaginative craft, we may unwittingly procrastinate in front of smart devices. On returning to our senses, we lament at the time lost, but we find ourselves at a loss when it comes to time management.

 

In my spare time, I study how people remain productive, and I blogged about productivity here and here. Recently, however, I’ve found myself in a productivity slump, and my lack of zest troubles me greatly. Besides, I don’t want to feel lazy. However, I recall the adage

Failing to plan is planning to fail.

 

So I decided to plan what I should do when I am no longer motivated to do the tasks at hand. I categorise these activities as “fail-safe”.

 

For example, I need to do a huge work-related project, but I also have several writing projects at hand as well as MOOC coursework. Instead of resorting to social media when I cannot stand the boredom, or learn to forcibly “fall in love with boredom”, I create the following flowchart:

 

Flowchart

 

Right now…

@1 Do work-related project

Motivated?
YES: Keep doing
NO: Fail safe @2: Writing Project 1 for 5 minutes

5 minutes later…

Motivated?
YES: Return to @1
NO: Fail safe @2: MOOC Coursework for 5 minutes

… (finite time-limited choices)

Motivated?
YES: Return to @1
NO: Take a shower/bite/drink and then return to @1

Task completed?
YES: Replace @1 with @2, @2 with @3 and so on, and then re-run the entire algorithm
NO: Keep doing

 

This flowchart can help exercise self-control and keep anyone on any number of important tasks. Instead of having to focus on a single task monotonously, we can now switch to different important tasks – and not even entertain the notion of procrastination – without thinking twice. It is also more practical than simply banning oneself from accessing social media sites, as the urge to go there is not quenched. However, with such a plan, completing the task-at-hand becomes easier and less boring because you can do a variety of tasks, just as spaced repetition – the practice of memorising the same words at a certain frequency not too fast or slow – makes one learn new vocabulary more efficiently.

 

Planning for failure makes success within one’s grasp. The next time you’ve hit a brick wall, try this method of planning ahead. Work in the 21st century is supposed to be flexible – and fun.

JL Giveaway

I’ve not been blogging for a while.

Now that I’m back, here is a quick update: I’ve joined a bunch of writers around the world called the “Just-us League”, or JL for short, and we’re thrilled to bring to you the books we’ve published so far!


JL Summer Giveaway (1)

To celebrate the release of the second JL Anthology, JL writers are hosting an exciting giveaway! Win our Ebook bundle, including copies of both anthologies, along with four other exciting reads, plus a beautiful leather journal.

Between Heroes and Villains

What is the difference between a hero and a villain?

A hero should always use their power for good: a detective devotes his life to chasing gifted villains; a girl uses her frost powers to rescue her father; a weary sidekick faces her childhood nemesis; and a young man must protect his loved ones against a tyrannical authority.

But having unique gifts means facing tough decisions: a doctor must choose between saving his reputation or his patient; a young woman saves a drowning man and finds herself in danger as a result; a student discovers the consequences of choice; and a wannabe hero takes on a supervillain hoping she’ll be invited to the hero’s league.

And the line between good and evil is oftentimes blurred: a self-made hero crosses that line to save the world; a lovesick henchman blindly follows his master’s orders; a mentor attempts to prevent a pupil from being drawn to villainy; a superpowered military team questions their orders despite the inevitable consequences.

Follow these men and women as they set out to save themselves, and the world, from the great evils around them.

The giveaway is here: http://www.rafflecopter.com/rafl/display/493032e93/?

Here are the details of the giveaway:

  • This giveaway will run from 16-30 June 2017 GMT+1 and is open worldwide.
  • The prize is six Ebooks and one leather journal, as pictured.
  • We reserve the right to substitute the leather journal for an Amazon voucher of equal value for non-US countries.
  • Entry is via Rafflecopter, gained by following the various social media accounts listed.
  • The winner will be chosen at random and will be informed by email.
  • The winner has 48 hours to respond to the winner notification to claim their prize.
  • The prizes will be delivered by the authors, and also via Etsy in accordance with their standard delivery terms.

 

How to Find Time to Write Your Book

Writing a book is a dream for many, but if it were so easy, many more of us would have become published authors. It is a feat not for the faint of heart. (Firstly, my first draft got the word “feat” as “feast”, but it depends on your perspective. You could treat writing as a feat or a feast! In fact I have written a book before, but it is for private circulation only and it is in Chinese *smirk*) Now, as National Novel Writing Month is in full swing, here are some tips for completing your book:

1) Write in stolen moments.

While riding on public transport or in a queue, you have the perfect opportunity to write. This is the time to notice your surroundings and reflect on things you’ve learnt and experienced.

Cut social media. I use several social media blocking tools such as SelfControl and RescueTime to help me focus on the tasks at hand. You’d be surprised how much free time you have once you lose every chance to procrastinate.

I always had some paper handy so that I could jot down ideas for my book easily. Now, since I carry my computer and mobile devices around, all I need is a few taps and I could record my thoughts. Do not let time pass by.

2) Write what you know. (Do I really have to say that?)

Sometimes you may be tempted to write things you don’t know well. This could lead to the “sagging middle”, which is when you find your story half-baked and the oven’s broken.

To avoid that, either make time to do research on the areas you don’t know too well, or start off by writing about the things you are familiar with. It’s a little like an examination skill: you do first the questions that have easy answers. That way, it boosts your confidence and keeps your momentum going.

But what if you really want to write a story set in unfamiliar settings? You can still find the time. Make regular trips to the library and don’t let your commitments get in the way. Take notes and make the most of each opportunity there. (If you’re Googling, focus on Googling and take as many notes as you can, too. Do it after work. It takes a lot of time.) Imagine characters in the settings you envision. Write or type as furiously as you can.

3) Believe in your story.

But if there’s one thing you must remember, it’s this: believe in your story. Believe that it has the power to inspire and tap into it. When you believe in your story, you will do everything to make it come alive in the pages.

Keep tinkering about and rewriting your story even when you’ve hit the 50,000 mark. Stories that don’t get a reworking are less worthwhile than those that eventually hit the shelves. Do not hesitate to invest in a professional writing coach if you lack the motivation to go on, because a good writing coach can tell you where you need improvement while showing you what you did well. For my current writing project, I was surprised that I didn’t give my main character her inner world, but my coach instead liked a minor character to whom I had given a voice. It’s a little the janitor who says “Welcome to my office!” in the washroom. Details make a difference.

You can expect to get so many rejection slips that you would be tempted to think about giving up. However, don’t forget that even the popular Harry Potter series was rejected by many publishers before it landed the right one. Believe in your story and you can surmount more obstacles than mere dreamers.

Sometimes it’s hard to believe in your story. Don’t worry; it’s fine for your story to change as you write it.

Never give up, whatever gets thrown your way. By making time to write, you are proving to yourself that you truly are a writer. By managing your time wisely, you also prove to yourself that you can control your destiny.

An Open Letter to a Lost Friend

Dear Lost Friend,

I won’t post your name here because you can definitely see it’s meant for you when you read this. Besides, privacy is important. However, I wish other people could take home a few lessons from our brief encounter so that they would not repeat my mistakes.

It’s been a year since we met over email. I mean, I was so happy that you would give me your personal email address. At that time I was inspired to connect with people thanks to the book “Never Eat Alone” by Keith Ferrazzi. You were what he called a “super-connector”, so it would have been superb to have connected with you. I had high hopes: we might have been able to meet for dinner, we could have exchanged mutually beneficial contacts, you could have been a mentor to so many youths I used to mentor, and we could have made excellent friends because we had several common interests, including mathematics, reading and writing. When I asked if you had Skype, I was on the verge of also breaking my own rules and asking if we could also connect on Facebook and LinkedIn. I usually do not connect over those platforms unless I have met the people in question in person. I was hoping for a real connection, and you seemed friendly up till that point. That I was able to interact with someone whose name I had only known through the news before made me elated.

I’m not sure why you wouldn’t want to interact with me in person, but what I did know was that things took a turn for the worse after you replied “Not really!” when asked if you used Skype. I had no idea why you would suddenly stop responding to my emails, just that being ignored bothered me. I didn’t believe that you would “gossip” — is that too strong a word? — to a mutual friend about my emails — I am not an annoying person to start with, and besides, I’m fine with people confronting me personally if they had a grievance. No need for middle-men. However, I agree with Maya Angelou when she said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Except that I somehow made you feel irritated, and I wish I could say sorry for that appropriately. It was in April when I learnt that if I contact someone who does not respond even at my third attempt, I am supposed to stop. Consciously I knew that I had to stop, but I didn’t realise I was still hoping that you would be nice to me until it was too late. I’m really sorry for all the emails I sent off after you stopped responding to me. Our mutual friend never told me was that you would maintain your respect for me if I had stopped writing, and that was what I needed to hear at the time!

You eventually wrote back, sugarcoating it with the pleasant fact that we once corresponded to each other, but the main point was that you didn’t want to hear from me again. I was devastated, not least because you, a super-connector, banned me from writing back even though we have never met in person. What if we did meet in person? What if business brought us together again? LinkedIn keeps asking me if I know you, but I know that you would kill me if I clicked your Connect button. Would you want to slaughter me so that you would feel better? I never wanted or expected our relationship to just end like this. I thought of the dinner we could have had together (because in July you were in my backyard), more books we could have shared, the connections we could have made, plus so much more. All gone because I didn’t see where I was headed.

From my counsellor, I learnt that you intended (and may still intend) to give me a hard time if I reached out again. Since you last wrote back, I have been terrified of trying new things, while I could see that you are still living the life you’re comfortable with, connecting with new people, except that the Follow button has disappeared from your Facebook profile, so you’re no longer open to people who want a slice of your learning. I am now afraid to open myself up again, lest I lose the other person. I also made friends with people you happen to know, and I cringe at the idea of asking them about you. In the past I would be happy to talk to other people, but now I am ashamed of my awkward silence when I come together with other people in maths and otherwise. Some old folks tell me to try everything; I know that if I tried just one thing — writing back, you wouldn’t be forgiving, and I don’t blame you because you’re not of my faith.

I wish we had maintained the friendly exchange we initiated last year. I wouldn’t give up on the prospect that we might meet again in the future and not bring up the past. In the meantime, however, I just want to say that you changed my life forever. I am no longer the happy and confident girl that initiated contact with you. Now I am wary of everything, including mathematics, for fear that I would cause you to further devastate me. I can’t even listen to my favourite energetic music lest I suddenly write back. I might have wanted to get my way in networking, but we both lost in the end. I was too eager to connect, and I lost you.

A belated “Happy birthday” to you and wishing you the best for your further studies. I know you read the two books I mentioned to you. I miss you — the original you last year.

Cheers,
Cassandra

On student suicides

I nearly became one of them.

I made it to Top 3 in Form 5 in school, and was an honours student for many years at my alma mater The Y.W.C.A. Hioe Tjo Young College. Underperforming in the HKALE narrowed my options to my then-least favourite subject chemistry, but I managed to transfer to mathematics eventually. In Year 3, I was hoping for great grades after a superb summer at the University of Cambridge, but thanks to a serious misunderstanding, my grades hit rock bottom. I gritted my teeth at the good maths grades like the fox in Aesop’s fable vying for grapes. I could not graduate with the rest of the people my age because I wanted to get close to my dream – and I’ve just learnt that my honours classification has closed many doors.

In the past 12 months, interview after interview, I was rejected, even though I have zealously learnt cover letter and CV writing since Form 2. As I was not good at social skills, I upset a young talented boy, who majored in my subject and whom I was dying to meet. He turned against me, shunning further contact completely as if we were sworn enemies; I could not understand why hatred could run so deeply. Some tried to take advantage of me and my multiple abilities, and I extricated myself with great difficulty. I have been devastated and apprehensive of the future.

But unlike what I have thought in the past, I have decided against taking my life. What have I done to leave the darkness? Yes, on the day I was to get my HKALE results, I was hit by a taxi. It would have been a fatal motorbike accident had I not frozen just in front of it – and then the taxi rammed into me. I have failed once, twice, and many times, yet because of those scars, I have learnt to embrace failure as if it were my naughty child. To laugh at mistakes, for mistakes are the beginning of real learning. To celebrate the little wins I gained by writing for mathematics and finding that people, when gently guided, can get interested in the art of problem solving and wow at abstract thinking. To see the world in a grain of sand, and heaven in a wild flower. To appreciate what Rudyard Kipling once wrote,

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster

And treat those two impostors just the same

To the stressed student and all others feeling sad over students who had taken their lives: The difficulties you have today – these too shall pass. Life’s not about your expectations, but how you manage them when they fail. I hope Hongkongers of all ages are strong enough to let themselves be flawed, because when we all stop ostracising failure but like ourselves instead, it makes a difference in this city. Perspective changes everything.

Double disappointment.

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First a question I couldn’t answer, then a camp I couldn’t join.

Earlier on: a scholarship I couldn’t win, a sports and a debate team I couldn’t join, an internship I couldn’t land, a story I couldn’t finish, and a boyfriend I couldn’t have.

Feeling like hiding under a blanket, never to resurface again. Rejection hurts so badly.

Envisioned myself an ordinary teacher, buried in an avalanche of meaningless answer scripts, books, meetings and whatnot at 30 years old.

Clawed my skin like X-Men, red-hot blood oozing out like lava, to return to the limelight

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